4. 3. 2021

English Version | What should I eat first?

by Nuno Miguel Dias


The egg or the chicken? This riddle is a little trickier than the original one because it forces you to think like a kid. But only on the surface. In almost all cultures, the egg is primordial. Both in gastronomy and symbology. Meaning, an egg is not just an egg. All it takes is for creativity to be put at the service of the cell.

In the weeks following the draft of this article, many incredible things happened with such speed that, all of a sudden, Sporting was almost winning the championship or the landing of the Perseverance rover in Mars sounded as commonplace as wearing a mask outside. But in the middle of so many small steps for man and giant leaps for humanity, something captured, in a special way, my attention, me to whom the 80s feel as if I lived them during my childhood. Or as if, while it was not yet time for Vasco Granja to show molding paste dolls on the second channel, acronyms such as IRA or ETA filled the news of those far away times. The latter felt like a bomb (dark irony intended) because Spain was (as it still is, last time I checked) just next door. The growing interest in the subject accompanied me up to my time in college, when, even if a little démodé faced with the contemporality (and the highly morbid outlines) of the Balkan conflict, still a lot of ink was put to paper, many discussions were held, many things were said. This goes to say that, during the drafting of this article, the defector General Galindo died. In the name of contextualization, Enrique Rodíguez Galindo was a “foot soldier” of the Spanish Civil Guard who climbed his way through the ladder and a few other things until he was General, already on the Intxaurrondo Division which, under his command, would become the epicenter of the antiterrorist fight in the Basque country. Except that the newspaper El País dug up some facts that, in the meantime, have been proven as true. In April 2000 he was convicted to 71 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of two Basque pro-independence men in 1983. That would have been one of the first actions the GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación) ever took, which practiced State Terrorism (known as the Dirty War) against ETA, by the order of the first two governments of Felipe González, and that were financed by people in higher positions within the Ministry of Home Affairs. But until 1987, at least, acts of torture and death filled the resume of General Galindo, who was an expert in inhumanity and later on proved as part of an illegal network of human and drug traffic. One of his victims, the cineaste Ion Arretxe, told the El País how a group of trained men kidnapped him and held him in a basement, for several days, kept awake and sleep-deprived through the use of force. Galindo showed up on the fifth day. He commanded that he’d tell him “what he knew”. Faced with a negative answer, “me retorció los huevos”, Arretxe revealed to the paper.

This fixation the Spanish have for huevos is legendary. Revueltos, rotos, hard, rancheros, estrellados, carlistas, encapotados, locos, de chistorra, de pisto, in tortillas, and this is only what comes in the gastronomy manuals of nuestros hermanos, as we can only imagine what goes on in particular households, with daring grandmas and mothers keen on pleasing. I couldn’t find the recipe for huevos retorcidos, but I figured it was a specialty of Galindo’s, poor guy, now he isn’t twisting anyone’s anything. Our Iberic neighbors’ gastronomy is to eggs as alentejanos’ is to bread. It shaped, inclusively, our own. At least in Easter. Because it’s around that time that, equipped and prepared with a week of vacation, that they enjoy coming to Portugal for a codfish diet. Old Brás, a Bairro Alto resident, knew it. The story is badly told when they say this funny guy from Lisbon only had the exact ingredients used in the recipe for the dish he decided to invent. I don’t buy it. Codfish, onions, garlic, olive oil, chips, eggs, olives, salt and salsa does not count for “improvising with what you got”. That’s a fully stocked pantry. What I believe happened is that the “inventor” of the Codfish à Brás dish was in charge of creating something to serve our Spanish friends and, not knowing what the gastronomic preferences at hand were, he thought, and rightly so: “As long as there are eggs in it, they’ll eat it”. And there he goes, conjecturing the basis for tons and tons of our good friend’s recipes, an onion stew with shredded codfish, added something else on top (chips) and in the end, you mix it all together to give it a look of a huevos revueltos. Sure success. But it would be incredibly naïve of our part to think only the Spanish are crazy about eggs, the utmost animal source of protein.

Ever since man realized that whole hunting thing was too tiring on the legs and required nerve-wracking patience with all waiting game, even more so when hungry, he opted for the widely intelligent alternative of domesticating a few animals, whose eggs proved to be of the biggest relevancy. And the saddest part is understanding that the dilemma from back still subsists on the poorest layers of the world, including Portugal: to kill the bird and eat its succulent meat, or to just take advantage of its reproductive system which is, thank goodness, way faster than the 23 human days? The option is as obvious as it applies again to cattle providing milk to the upkeep of their cubs, but also to the one who leads him through green fields and hillsides, even more so if, like me, they are lovers of any type of cheese, the smellier the better… We’ll have to take a raincheck on the chicken. Until then, we have eggs. In Portugal, eggs were at the inception of that undeniable treasure that is conventual sweets. Because the people contributed to royalty with mandatory taxes, but also, voluntarily and faithfully, to the upkeep of convents. And what could the people contribute with? Eggs! Out of in-house management of offerings, mothers separated the egg whites, destined to ironing their habits, from yolks, which gave birth to Bread of Rala, to Encharcada, Barrigas de Freira, Abade’s Pudim, Toucinho do Céu, Papos de Anjo, Castanhas de Ovos, Tecolameco, and, of course, the pastries of Tentúgal which the doctor/ poet Jorge de Sousa compared to the very heart of Portugal: “Portugal / I’ll tell you something I never told anyone / You know / I’m madly in love with you / I ask myself / How could I fall for an old decrepit idiot like you / but with a heart even sweeter than the / pasteries of Tentugal / and a body full of black heads I can / pop freely.”

Out of the many examples I could cite when it comes to how we, as humans, have very weak ability of self-criticism, I would leave you with the one we can easily visualize of our antecessors, not necessarily pre-historic ones, always picking a fight. For territory, scarce food supplies, ethical and racial matters, or simply because we weren’t (are we?) that mentally advanced, it’s easy to conceive the image of hairy men fighting violently. After a few million years, we verify now that we stayed exactly the same. When in traffic, queuing at the supermarket, and most of all, in social media. We’re at each other’s throats all the time, even if only verbally. Intolerance is the biggest vehicle. And that always comes from a lack of instruction. Which makes us think we would be so much more tolerant in likewise times. Nowadays, to be a nomad is to be a gypsy. And being a gypsy means you don’t want to work. It’s to be subsidy-dependent and a criminal. If you’re sedentary, you’re fat. And doctors are the ones stating it, not some bloke on a bar. What twisted species evolution route must this be, one where dominating the environment in order to subsist without the need to constantly look for greener pastures made us all sick? It’s simple. We stopped eating, besides frugally, seasonally, and healthy. And that’s when eggs come in. There was a time when the risk they posed to our health was touted to whoever had ears. Three eggs a week and, still, with extreme caution, the nutrition experts said. Most likely, the same ones who would say, in the faraway 80s, that sardine was highly prejudicial to one’s health. Until someone discovered Omega3, that miraculous ingredient that fights the bad cholesterol and eliminates all oxides these modern times impose. Today, we can consume as many eggs as we want. For someone who was born in the 70s like me, to hear that you can eat eggs every day is as if someone said to us now that COVID-19 is a G8 invention and that, therefore, we can all go party all night, crowd restaurants up to the roof, hug our families and travel. Scrambled eggs for breakfast, one or two hard-boiled eggs for a mid-morning snack just in case, two or three fried eggs at lunch, bowls for an afternoon break, eggs with flour sausage for dinner and chocolate mousse for supper? Oh, it’s a brand-new world! It may very well be here that lies the solution to the world diet. For those who pretend to follow the vegetarian route, eggs have all the protein we’re used to, in one single cell (yes, empirically, an egg is a cell that is visible without the need for a microscope, with a plasmatic membrane, cytoplasm, and nucleus, meaning shell, whites and yolk, respectively). Then, we have that eggs, especially if boiled, are very low fat. Is this good news or what?

Let’s sidetrack a little from gastronomy, that this is not just about stuffing our faces. The symbology of the egg. Birth, creation, and a new life through transformation. It’s a primitive and embryonic way of life, associated with vital energy and nature’s renewal because it represents fertility and eternity, and consequently, the rebirth, renovation, the divine, wisdom, and even wealth. In Christianity, it symbolizes resurrection (for those who care to try to understand why the hell there are so many colorful eggs laying around during Easter time). The Incas associated it with the Sun and the Moon, represented, respectively, in the gold and silver eggs in the Coricancha temple, in Cusco, Peru. There are also many other cultures (some still existing and others which are now extinct) that associated the egg to the genesis of the world, being that the “cosmic egg” is the one that encapsulates the potential of life, from the Egyptian culture to the Celtic, going through the Greek, Phoenician, Hindu, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese. For the orthodox church, Easter constitutes a crucial moment in the liturgic calendar. During the XIX century, the tradition dictated that decorated chicken eggs should be exchanged, as well as three kisses on the cheek to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. In the Easter of 1885, the Czar Alexander III placed an order to the official jeweler of court, Karl Gustavovich Faberge (or Peter Carl Fabergé) for a jewel in the shape of an egg, he wanted to offer to Czarina Maria Feodorovna as a gift. It was the first of 56 orders that were placed between 1885 and 1916, since production was interrupted due to the Bolshevik revolution (1917). Platinum, gold, silver, copper, quartz, jade, or lapis lazuli were the prime materials, the egg though, that one was adorned with many jewels besides diamonds alone. Each egg was unique, and the decorations were inspired by artworks and/ or Russian historical scenes. Inside, there was a royal Kinder-like surprise: a chicken, a rabbit, an imperial crown, a carriage, a folding screen, and many other miniature motifs. Today, the Fabergé eggs are spread across the globe, in the hands of collectors with invaluable price tags.

Around here, and as good Portuguese people we are, eggs are more popular in the form of appetizers. So popular indeed, that they’re present in oral tradition as well, through the work of popular sayings, of course, whose meaning is, oftentimes, widely peculiar. “An egg wants salt and fire”, that’s an obvious one. On the contrary, “There goes evil, where they eat eggs without salt”, redirects attention to the need to be suspicious of those who don’t pay the required respect to their eggs. “Roasted egg, half; boiled egg, whole; fried, egg and a half” puts in a clear hierarchy the nobility of the ways to cook them, while “Soft egg, awkward eating” is much more than a gastronomical saying, putting in evidence how being of bland character can get us in trouble. But the most beautiful one of all, one that holds a special account for the primordial food is: “They who offer eggs don’t wish death”, which alludes to the nutritious value at hand. “To a new servant, bread and egg; when they’re old, bread and give me”, refers to the need to lend vigor, through correct nutrition, to the younger, though it previews also an endemic aspect of our culture: the abandonment of the elderly. “From a bad crow, a bad egg” reveals the necessity of having good birds in order to have good, delicious eggs. “Bad is the fox who screams, and even worse when it goes to the eggs”, “Cackling without laying the egg”, “Tighten a chicken’s nest and she’ll lay you an egg”, “God gave me an egg, and it was a rotten one”, “A chicken who lays eggs in grape harvests is queen” are all up for your consideration. And if, in a very modern way, it is commonplace to ignore the importance of popular sayings, think long and hard if you’d like to spend your life alongside someone who “can’t even fry an egg”, dear dining readers.

Translated from the original article of Vogue Portugal's Creativity issue, published in March 2021.